Bangkok Post: lifestyle

21 December 2013 7:21 PM

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The ever multi-tasking pop megastar tackles female empowerment with inimitable aplomb in the genre-hopping, sonically complex and seductive fifth album.

Just when we were about to let out a sigh of relief at the end of what has been an exhaustingly stellar year for music, Beyonce went and casually released a surprise "visual album" on iTunes without any trace of promotional build-up or singles. While such a stealthy move was performed previously this year by David Bowie and Kanye West, Queen Bey's gone one step further by giving each song on the record a sleek visual accompaniment, chronicling "images that are tied to a feeling or an emotion, a memory from [her] childhood, thoughts about life, [her] dreams or [her] fantasies". With this self-titled outing, she aims to provide ADHD-prone listeners with an immersive experience she claims to be so lacking in today's pop music. Talk about a grand concept, right? But since this is one of the most clued-in and hard-working women in the music industry we're talking about (seriously, where does she find the time to do it all especially with the ongoing Mrs Carter Show world tour?), it's hard to not take her word for it.

Thematically, Beyonce touches on feminity, self-exploration, womanhood, and, by extension, motherhood. The album's opener, Pretty Hurts, deals exclusively with self-empowerment with the lyrics courtesy of famed Australian songwriter Sia ("Pretty hurts/Shine the light on whatever's worse/Trying to fix something/But you can't fix what you can't see/It's the soul that needs the surgery").

On the feminism front, there's ***Flawless, which prominently features an excerpt on feminism by acclaimed Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, while in the balladry department, Bey duly offers a couple of sweeping jams including Heaven, Jealous and Blue (featuring her daughter Blue Ivy).

Sexual confidence has never been on fuller display, either. Tracks such as the Jay Z-assisted Drunk in Love, disco-funk Blow and Partition are rife with sexual innuendos and double-entendres, particularly the latter whose downright X-rated content will make a grown man blush ("Driver roll up the partition please/I don't need you seeing 'Yonce on her knees ... He popped all my buttons, and he ripped my blouse/He Monica Lewinsky-ed all on my gown"). All things considered, this is by far Beyonce's finest work. It's cohesive but never once suffocating. The production is top-notch with the impressive visuals to match, making the whole thing an all-around immersive experience. Bey succeeds in living up to her artistic aspirations while at the same time offering a bewildering stylistic range from hip hop and avant-garde R&B to soul-funk and brooding electronica _ all of which she has more than enough vocal chops to pull off. Compared to the recent pop releases by a throng of her contemporaries, hers is the boldest, most honest and adventurous. It triumphantly marks a gratifying end to the year of abundant music that is 2013.

After revealing their new single O-Noi-Oog a couple of weeks ago, Thai alternative rockers continue to tease us with another new cut from their upcoming and yet-to-be-named sixth studio album. Scala (the iconic cinema in Siam Square) presents a totally different vibe from their previous single, with relatable lyrics about going to the movies to escape reality. Complete with a funky bass line, the track is catchy enough to stick in your head for days.

A Great Big World's stripped-down piano ballad Say Something gets diva-ified by pop powerhouse Christina Aguilera and we must admit it's not too bad at all. Instead of taking over the verse or the chorus, Xtina manages to rein it in, providing backing vocals to singer Ian Axel. "Say something, I'm giving up on you/I'll be the one, if you want me to/Anywhere, I would've followed you," he croons over the haunting piano melody. Kudos to Aguilera for noticing the song's simple greatness, and, most of all, for not overdoing it.

The original American Idol gets festive with Wrapped in Red, a Christmas-themed album featuring a mix of holiday classics and five newly-written tunes which includes lead single Underneath the Tree. Written by Clarkson herself and her producer Greg Kurstin, the track features a Phil Spector "Wall of Sound" arrangement complete with cheery elements such as jingles, sleigh bells and a sax solo. While the lyrics ("You're all that I need, underneath the tree") may be evocative of Mariah Carey's modern Christmas classic All I Want for Christmas is You, Clarkson has the ability to make them completely her own.

Apart from electronic dance music, folk-rock seems to be another popular musical trend pop artists are gagging to cash in on. With that said, it's no surprise that the boy band du jour is the latest act to jump on the rollicking folk bandwagon with Story of My Life, the second single off their third studio album, Midnight Memories. However, unlike Gary Barlow, the boys pull it off by taking turns showcasing their diverse vocal range while refraining from trying to sound like Marcus Mumford. The arena rock influences are still there, but subtle and kept to a minimum.

Since their collaboration on Braxton's single Give U My Heart back in 1992, the multi-platinum R&B icons reunite in a pretty big way with their first duet album, Love, Marriage and Divorce. The album's first single, Hurt You, is a heart-wrenching piano ballad in which the two artists prove why they remain reigning stars even after more than two decades in the business. "God knows I never meant to hurt you/I never meant to break your heart/God knows I never meant to turn you on, to turn you out," they sing in flawless unison, drawing emotion from their divorces and failed relationships.


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